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A few months ago, I previewed some of the fall and winter releases Hollywood was planning to drop on us, mostly in movie theaters — as they say, on the big screen. Of those films listed in that VIP piece, one of the most anticipated was the semi-autobiographical passion project directed by Steven Spielberg, “The Fabelmans.” The movie opened in limited released on November 11, then wide across the country on Nov. 23, in time for Thanksgiving movie goers.
A couple notes before I dive into my review, which is 100 percent SPOILER FREE. I purposely didn’t watch any interviews in advance or read any reviews beyond the NY Post’s, which was in my VIP piece. Out of curiosity, I asked the movie theater cashier if she’d heard anything about the movie. She said, “Not really, but I think it’s about Steven Spielberg’s early life.”
The script, co-written with playwright Tony Kushner, does indeed cover the director’s early years–from age six through his brief stint at college, in the form of the “Sammy” character. We learn that Spielberg’s lifelong love affair with movies and moviemaking started that early; you can see its spark in the trailer, when his parents take him to see his first movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show On Earth.”
But there’s so much more to it than that. “The Fabelmans” runs two-and-a-half hours, which are needed to tell the story Spielberg has been waiting most of his life to tell.
Now, I will share one “review” I found while researching this piece — but only to help you figure out if “The Fabelmans” is for you. Actor Carl Marino says he and his wife went to see the film this week; they were bored around the hour-and-a-half point and walked out.
Wow, @thefabelmans … only the second movie I’ve ever walked out of in my lifetime. I give every film more chance than most. This was so boring, beautifully shot, but boring. Gave it an hour and a half. Couldn’t do another hour. Wife agreed.
— Carl Marino (@carlmarino1) November 30, 2022
Now, why would someone says that about this movie? The problem is one of expectations going into the movie theatre. This isn’t “E.T.” or “Jaws.” Or even “Schindler’s List.” The best way to describe it is that it’s an independent film that happens to be made by Steven Spielberg. Why else would Spielberg (wearing his producer’s hat) debut the movie at the 2022 Toronto Film Festival–the first time he’s done that in his career, as he said in the introduction to its screening? Blockbuster films don’t debut on the film festival circuit.
Like any good indie film, it’s about big ideas more than plot points. As they say, it’s the journey and not the destination. Before you plunk down your cash for this movie, I urge you to consider whether that’s something you (and anyone you’re thinking of taking to it) are prepared to watch. This story includes scenes showing a budding, teen director painstakingly learning how to edit film, among others that need more time. There are difficult to watch, violent scenes showing Sammy getting bullied for being Jewish. The film is also about art and the passion to make it your life’s work. And where family relationships fall as a part of reaching that goal.
As I wrote in my meditation on David Lynch’s masterpiece, “The Elephant Man,”
What makes a person valuable to society is not at all the same thing that makes him or her human.
It also isn’t the same thing that makes someone an artist. (Speaking of Lynch, watch for a brilliant cameo by Spielberg’s fellow director near the end of the movie. To reveal any more would be a spoiler. If you want to know, check out the link above.)
Another signal that this is not your typical Spielberg movie is in the eclectic casting. It’s probably no surprise that the actors playing Sammy are unknowns (especially the perfectly cast Gabriel LaBelle), but then you have Michelle Williams (“Manchester By The Sea) as his mother, Mitzi, and Paul Dano (“Love And Mercy”) as dad Burt. Comedian Seth Rogen, who was very funny here, has a pivotal supporting role as a family friend who works with Sammy’s dad.
Then there’s the hilarious, sparkling Judd Hirsch, whose role as the relative who comes for a surprise visit acts as a bridge to the son’s making directing a “have-to,” instead of his father’s insistence it only stay as a hobby. Williams is also transcendent as Mitzi here, as a faithful ally who believes in Sammy’s moviemaking dreams. As her character says in the trailer, “You do what your heart says you have to.” Thank goodness for all of us, Spielberg did.